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Echoes of Walkerton in Environment Canada cuts


Albert Einstein’s well-known definition of insanity as “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results” is unsettlingly relevant to a new round of federal government cuts. The latest slashing of Environment Canada, which by 2016 will have half the budget it had in 2007, calls to mind a series of deep cuts to environmental protections in Ontario in the late 1990s. Some of the players are even the same, so they cannot reasonably claim to be ignorant of the tragic consequences.

In May 2000, the water system of Walkerton, Ont., suffered an E. coli outbreak that left nearly half the community’s 4,800 people ill. Seven died. In the uproar that followed, a commission of inquiry was struck by the government of Ontario to determine what happened. The resulting report, written by Justice Dennis O’Connor, makes for interesting reading. The Walkerton Public Utilities Commission was blamed for improper operating practices and the Ontario Ministry of the Environment was blamed for providing insufficient oversight.

Underlying the failures of the Walkerton PUC and the MOE, however, were government of Ontario cutbacks. How deep were the cuts? In the years leading up to the Walkerton tragedy, the MOE’s budget was reduced by 68 per cent and its staffing by 40 per cent. These numbers are comparable to what Environment Canada is experiencing today. Consider, for example, that Environment Canada’s climate change and clean air program is having its budget reduced by an astonishing 77 per cent. The cuts are so deep that they appear designed to break Environment Canada once and for all.

O’Connor’s report on the Walkerton tragedy is scathing in its assessment of the provincial government’s role: “Before the decision was made to significantly reduce the MOE’s budget in 1996, senior government officials, ministers and the cabinet received numerous warnings that the impacts could result in increased risks to the environment and human health . . . The decision to proceed with the budget reductions was taken without either an assessment of the risks or the preparation of a risk management plan.”

It is the same with the current cuts to Environment Canada. Since the cuts began in earnest in 2011, scientists have been sounding the alarm. Their warnings have fallen on deaf ears. And, as was the case in Ontario, it appears that the federal government has not assessed the risks. Kevin Page, the former parliamentary budget officer, famously sued the federal government in 2012 in an attempt to obtain information on how cuts to government departments would affect programs — including environmental protection. Canadians are still waiting for answers. In the meantime, evidence has emerged that Environment Canada’s capacity to crack down on polluters has been compromised.

It is interesting to note that three members of that Ontario government have played key roles in Stephen Harper’s federal cabinet: Jim Flaherty (the outgoing minister of finance), John Baird (minister of foreign affairs), and Tony Clement (president of the Treasury Board). Flaherty, Baird and Clement were there when Ontario’s cuts were made and witnessed the result. Surely they must see the parallels now. So why haven’t they spoken out about the dismantling of Environment Canada?

Protecting the health and safety of Canadians is a key responsibility of the federal government. Investment in environmental protection — Environment Canada’s job — is only prudent. University of Ottawa professor Scott Findlay likens the collection of evidence by federal departments such as Environment Canada to an insurance policy: a comparatively inexpensive yet effective way to ensure others will not have to shoulder the burden of undesired and unanticipated consequences of avoidable mistakes. Cancelling that insurance is quite simply irresponsible.

The cost of the Walkerton tragedy was estimated at the commission to be between $64.5 million and $155 million. It remains to be seen what the cuts to Environment Canada will ultimately cost us — both financially and in human terms.

Thomas J. Duck is an associate professor in the Department of Physics and Atmospheric Science at Dalhousie University and a Broadbent Institute Fellow.

This article originally appeared in the Toronto Star.

Photo: Jenn Farr. Used under a Creative Commons BY-NC-SA-2.0 licence.